Long and unsatisfying search for a traveling salesman who disappeared

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Three of the documentaries Imamura Shôhei made during his 1968-79 hiatus from making feature films were about WWII-era Japanese soldiers who stayed on a quarter of a century or more in Southeast Asia. They had been deployed there, but did not repatriate with the rest of the defeated Japanese army. Two of Imamura’s later movies were about relocated murderers—one on the run (Vengeance Is Mine), the other after serving a prison term (The Eel).

A year before the spectacular implosion of Imamura’s career with the 1968 “Profound Desire of the Gods,” he made the very lengthy (130-minute) “Ningen jôhatsu” (literally, “A Man Evaporates”; the English-language title “A Man Vanishes” is pretty close; the French one, “L’evaporation de l’homme,” was exact).

Imamura and his film crew (most notably actor Tsuyuguchi as the lead questioner) join Hayakawa Yoshie, the thick-eyebrowed fiancée of the plastics salesman, Oshima Tadshi, who disappeared in April 1965 They talk to his employer, a bank employee, other residents of the company barracks, bartenders, a taxi driver, a brother who lent him 100, 000 yen, a former lover whom he may have impregnated (she denies it) and may have been “the love of his life”, et al. They clarify the date he vanished, but neither his motivations nor his current location. The documentary about their investigation lasts about an hour, and in my opinion the movie should have, too.

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With more than an hour yet to go, the film shifts into a confrontation between Yoshie and her older sister, Sayo. Yoshie first theorizes that Oshima was shocked to discover that the sister of his fiancée was a “fallen woman,” the mistress kept by a married man. Later Yoshie accuses Sayo of having had an affair with Oshima, and a spirit medium (consulted several times by the vanished man’s mother) claims Sayo poisoned Oshima after he rejected her.

There are lengthy conversations in which Sayo rejects the accusations that she had any relationship of any sort with Oshima, and the supposed documentary increasingly turns into staged melodrama. I had lost patience before the very prolonged final scene of a verbal confrontation in the street (which followed a second ending point).

“A Man Vanishes” is much more cinematic than the post-“Desire” documentaries that had extended visually static scenes. The dialogue is not just out of synch with the speakers we see. It is between those speakers, but often seems to be from other recorded conversations altogether (that is, the length of utterances does not correspond with the duration of the particular person’s lip movements).

Truth is elusive, uh-huh. Didn’t we learn this from the far more engaging Kurosawa “Rashômon” decades earlier? (or the contemporaneous “Blow-Up”). And stuff in supposed “documentaries” (preceding “reality” tv shows) is often staged. Didn’t we learn this about “Nanook of the North” even earlier? And Yoshie getting the attention of a film-crew stimulates her to persist in trying to find what happened to her fiancé. Even she seems to lose interest in his disappearance as she pursues grievances against her sister.

Given the strictness of household registries in Japan, I’m surprised that 91,000 Japanese could have disappeared in 1965, but perhaps this “fact” is also Imamura fiction? The movie does nothing to illuminate how it is possible.

Icarus’ DVD release includes three more discs with five later Imamura documentaries (I discuss the three about Japanese soldiers who did not return to the homeland after WWII here) that observe more, manipulate less, and seem to have forgotten the lesson about the untrustworthiness of filmed documentaries made in “A Man Vanishes.”

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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